“It felt like we were changing the world”: inside New Order’s seminal ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’

With the classic 1983 album reissued this week, Andrew Trendell speaks to the band and famous fans about a record that helped to shape electronic music. (Photo credit: Kevin Cummins/Press)

A melon ball cocktail is made up of two-parts Midori liquor and one-part vodka, and topped off with orange juice. They’re absolutely lethal, and are responsible for an infamous New Order gig at Ontario Theater in Washington in 1983, which was the subject of a legendary ‘on the road’ NME feature for the band’s second album ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’.

There was a mad scramble to the airport the day before in New York, former bassist Peter Hook – aka Hooky – tells us today, clearly tickled when asked about the article. When they arrived for their flight, manager Rob Gretton suggested they spend their cash on a very affordable breakfast or take advantage of a two-for-one deal on departure lounge cocktails. Of course they went for the latter.

“We laid into vodka cocktails, and by three o’clock in the afternoon I was seeing triple,” Hooky chuckles down the phone. “Me, Steve [Morris, drummer] and Rob were arsehole pissed. They ended up dragging me out of my seat and putting me in the toilet. As we came in to land, I fell down with my feet blocking the door. I couldn’t move and it took them about an hour to drag me out.”

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Drummer Stephen Morris remembers: “We’re lucky he actually made the gig. Surprisingly, I can remember that one!” So can Hooky, who has been sober since 2005. On that fateful evening, he was shoved in a cab to the venue, had a nap, woke up baffled as to where he was and went for a burger, only for a confused fan to walk in to the restaurant and tell him that his band were playing on stage without him, with Gretton attempting to fill in on bass duties.

It was a messy night – but one of many, and emblematic of the colour, chaos and adventure that surrounded the band at the time. “That tour was probably one of the best we ever had,” Hooky admits.

Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Ian Curtis, Peter Hook performing live as Joy Division at Bowdon Vale Youth Club (Photo by Martin O’Neill/Redferns)

These aren’t the antics that you might have expected from the doom-mongers seen in post-punk pioneers Joy Division a few years earlier, now forever frozen in those monochrome images by Anton Corbijn and Kevin Cummins. As Morris tells us: “You never think of Joy Division as a band who had any fun – even though we did have a lot of fun. The 21st Century perspective of us is that we were four dour young men living in basements. New Order was the complete opposite of that.”

After Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis took his own life in 1980, surviving members Hooky, Morris and guitarist and now singer Bernard Sumner brought in Gillian Gilbert on synth and guitar, rechristened themselves New Order and vowed to carry on – taking each day as it came and fumbling for a sound and identity of their own. It didn’t come quickly. Their early singles and 1981 debut album ‘Movement’, made with Factory Records producer Martin Hannett, didn’t land well with fans or critics for being neither here nor there, not quite satisfying Joy Division purists or those who wanted something truly fresh.

“As much I enjoyed ‘Movement’ musically, the process was a bit harrowing,” says Hooky. “Half of the stuff was left over from Joy Division and the other half was us desperately trying to learn how to be half as good as Ian Curtis. It was a fraught process, to say the least.”

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This was made only more fraught by promoters putting their former band name on tour posters, with fans showing up and protesting as New Order jammed through new songs and new sounds in a bid to find themselves. “People didn’t want us to forget about Joy Division. That’s what we were trying to do,” says Hooky. “We could have grieved for Ian for six months – we could have grieved for a year – but we thought that we would lose everything. As you get older you realise that you didn’t have to rush.”

“People didn’t want us to forget about Joy Division. That’s what we were trying to do” – Peter Hook

Soon, the band struck gold. While the pulsing electronica of stand-alone single ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ in 1982 was the start of them coming out of their cocoon, 1982’s dizzying, synth-pop euphoria of ‘Temptation’ is where their promise really started to bloom and they really became the band we know today. The tell-tale sign of the new material working was that it pissed off all the right people. “It was really when Joy Division fans didn’t like what we were doing, like with ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ and ‘Temptation’ that we knew we’d hit on something,” says Morris.

Gillian Gilbert agrees: “That’s when we knew what we really wanted it to sound like. We then wanted to move it along in our own way rather than how a producer might want to. We were left alone and came up with our own sound. We went to live in London to record, which we’d never done before and meant we could concentrate more because we were in our own little world.”

With total control, the band toyed with synths and keyboards, experimenting with abandon to see where it would lead. Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor witnessed this approach up close and personal some decades later. “Having worked with them, I can tell you that their fascination with synthesizers is really intense and amazing,” he tells NME. “They were coming towards dance music as a post-punk band and they bridged that gap quite beautifully.”

At the time, it was daring. “It was actually quite shocking to realise what these new machines could do – you were always in awe of them,” Hooky says, with Morris explaining how the whole process was an education: “We got all this new musical equipment and just learned how it worked. Writing ‘Blue Monday’ was an exercise in learning what we could do with it all.”

The stand-alone single ‘Blue Monday’ may have started as a playful experiment, but it became the best-selling 12-inch single of all time and is now regarded as an all-time classic. Gatecrashing the charts upon release and earning the band a shambolic performance on Top Of The Pops (they opted to play live rather than mime to their “punk credentials,” Hooky tells us), it preceded ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ by a few months, introducing the planet to the band’s new Technicolour world. “It was great, because ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ was basically the first real New Order record,” says Morris. “It’s when we stopped being Joy Division and found a new direction through the means of technology and dance music.”

The record was met with universal acclaim. NME’s Paul Du Noyer wrote that “the music makes no pretentious claims for itself, nor does it labour after an impression of profundity. New Order are just getting on with it, simply, efficiently and enjoyably”. He wasn’t wrong. From the kinetic post-punk of ‘Age Of Consent’ to the sci-fi atmospherics of ‘We All Stand’ and ‘The Village’, via the Kraftwerk-indebted ‘Ecstasy’ and elegiac masterpiece ‘Your Silent Face’, it marries a human warmth and energy with the polished shimmer of machines.

“If anyone saw a band like us, it might make them do something” – Gillian Gilbert

The words also feel direct and organic. “It was the first time that Bernard wrote all the lyrics and found himself as a singer,” says Morris. “On ‘Movement’ we’d all sweated blood and tried to write meaningful lyrics together and failed miserably. On ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’… Bernard had found a way of singing and a style that really suited him. Who else would put “You caught me at a bad time / So why don’t you piss off’ at the end of a song like ‘Your Silent Face’? You can tell we’re not being terribly serious.”

It’s a balance that certainly captured the heart of Welsh electro-pop don Kelly Lee Owens, a superfan who declares it “an amazing fucking record” and adds: “everything about it is wonderful.

Credit: Kim Hiorthøy

“Growing up in North Wales, Manchester was the closest big city to me,” she tells NME. “I was only born in ‘88 myself, so I was a late-comer – but it’s one of those albums that gets played continuously no matter what. I was in Manchester when I was 17, slightly under-age and probably shouldn’t have been in some clubs, but you do what you’ve got to do, and I just remember dancing with my friends to these tracks before discovering the album.

“Working in record stores after, I noticed that this was a record that would consistently sell. We’d always be ordering it in every two weeks.”

Joining the dots between ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ and her own acclaimed new album ‘Inner Song’, which received the full five-star treatment from NME, Owens explains how “it relates to connecting the dancier elements with the more indie nuances” as well as marrying “joy and melancholy” to really create a sense of space. “It really spoke to me because they weren’t afraid to go into those slightly more emotionally tense places sonically, but then make you move your body through that,” she says. “That’s so fucking exciting.

“Obviously a lot of people were influenced by Kraftwerk, but then New Order brought their northern, Mancunian energy to it. It’s like dancing in the rain. That’s what I think about when I think of Manchester and New Order – those places shape you.”

“To have a woman like Gillian be a part of something like this was really inspiring” – Kelly Lee Owens

Owens is also keen to point how she wouldn’t be where she is today without the shining light of one Gillian Gilbert: “Having Gillian as the synth queen was fucking amazing, speaking as a woman in music. You can’t be what you can’t see, so to have a woman be a part of something like this and own her part was really inspiring. Women are often underrated, or their part is dismissed. She needs to be celebrated as the synth queen that she is.”

When NME puts this to Gilbert herself, she replies: “It’s weird – you never think of your work as part of history or influencing people. It was weird when I joined because nobody expected a girl to be brought into the band. They expected another singer. It got better in the ‘90s, but going to Japan in the ‘80s for a photo shoot was a real shock because they didn’t want to talk to me. They’d say to the male members, ’Can you tell her to move?’ That was how they treated women in them days. I was just there in the background a lot of the time.

“It always felt like you were doing special because not many women were playing keyboards or any instruments. If anyone saw a band like us, it might make them do something.”

Blending raw emotion with a danceable beat and futuristic sounds, New Order fired off a strand of DNA that can be heard through the fabric of electronica and pop into LCD Soundsystem, Daft Punk, Robyn, Lorde and beyond. Says Hooky: “That marriage of rock and sequencers, acoustic instruments and electronic instruments – that’s what makes up 90% of the music on the radio today, from rap to dance and any kind of music that you’d care to name. A lot of the bands who don’t sound like Joy Division sound like New Order.”

Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor adds: “It’s such an innovative and unusual record from an innovative and unusual band,” he says. “When you go back to it, you realise that they were very pioneering in combining melancholic, thoughtful, lyrics with the alien sound of synthesizers and the pulse of dance music and the darkness of where they’d come from with Joy Division.

“It’s a strange hybrid, which then becomes the norm after a while. Lots of bands bridge those moods… I remember listening to it and being quite taken aback by how much LCD owed a debt to it 20 years later, so it’s still having an impact on future generations. It’s a deep record.”

‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ was New Order’s first real taste of success. Now, 37 years and eight albums later, they remain an arena-filling household name with their influence immeasurable. The turn of the century and a post-punk revival saw Joy Division come back in vogue like never before, which led this album to eventually get the full appreciation it deserved.

“When you look at Joy Division now, we’re epitomised by black and white landscapes. ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ has got colour in it” – Stephen Morris

Relations soon soured in the band sadly, with Hooky leaving New Order in 2007 before over a decade of legal battles. He now tours the back catalogue of his former bands with The Light, while New Order – having just shared the single ‘Be A Rebel’ – are awaiting the COVID lockdown to lift so they can head out on an arena tour next year and start work on a new record. Still, their fondness of the memories from this game-changing record remain intact.

“They were really heady days,” says Hooky. “You felt like you were changing the world. Looking back on it, I think that Joy Division and New Order did change the world – culturally and musically. ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ was our honeymoon period. It’s quite heartwarming to realise what you’ve achieved together. It makes the shit worthwhile.

“My relationship with the others is so difficult, even today, that it makes you think that maybe someone should sit us all down in a room and play us this album together and go, ‘Why the fuck are you arguing like this when you did this?’ It was a wonderful achievement and it makes me feel immensely proud.”

Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor

Kelly Lee Owens sums up the record’s legacy: “In the wider sphere, I think the album inspired people to be bolder and do what they wanted to do. Go and create something that’s timeless in its own sense that mixes genres and mixes worlds. Weirdly, you’re still not really supposed to do that. People like to put you in boxes. I’m not interested in that, and it didn’t seem like they were either.”

Therein is the real lesson from ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’: open up, let go and live a little.

– New Order release ‘Power, Corruption & Lies: The 2020 Definitive Edition’ on Friday October 2

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